A Gripping Tale of a Brazen Heist That Continually Gets In Its Own Way
Directed By Bart Layton / 2018
American Animals is a curious beast- part fish, part foul. That is to say it is a movie based on a true story, but it also features documentary-style interviews of the real people on whom the story is based. The real people sometimes even interact with their actor counterparts, going so far to correct their account of the story being told. This is a clever conceit, but maybe it’s a bit too clever for its own good. Whenever the real story and the fictional portrayal collided, I was thrown right out of the picture. Maybe that’s the director’s intent, but the story being told was fascinating and the actors do such a great job bringing it too life that I began to resent the intrusion. Whenever I was settling into the movie’s rhythms, I kept getting a metaphorical elbow in the ribs.
The story in question is that of a heist that occurred at Transylvania College in Lexington, Kentucky in 2004. A group of four college friends conspired to steal extremely rare and valuable books from the school’s special collection. They didn’t do this for the money- they came from families who were comfortably upper-middle class- rather, they claimed,they did it to escape from lives that were threatening to become too ‘ordinary.’
When writer/director Bart Layton (The Imposter), a British filmmaker, first read about the theft, he felt that it “sounded like the plot to some old movie.” And that’s the way the boys themselves saw it as well. They even researched the planning of the heist by watching old heist movies such as Ocean’s Eleven and Rafifi. In turn, they view their own heist as a movie with them in the starring roles. And now Layton has made the whole affair into a real film; movies becoming life, and life wheeling around to become a movie again.
Whenever the real story and the fictional portrayal collided, I was thrown right out of the picture.
The initial idea for the crime comes from Spencer (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk, The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Spencer is an art student who doesn’t feel like he’ll ever be a great artist because his life has been devoid of any suffering. He floats his plan past his childhood friend Warren (Evan Peters, X-Men: Days of Future Past). Warren has been the ‘bad influence’ in Spencer’s life and when Warren hears about the books, he envisions graduating from petty theft and minor drug offenses to something on a much more legendary scale. Warren convinces Spencer they can pull this off because he can make contact with European buyers and the boys can sell the books for a great deal of money.
The plan they come up with is relatively straight forward, but it will still take more than the two of them to pull it off. Warren and Spencer recruit Eric (Jared Abrahamson, Fear the Walking Dead), an accounting student who wants to work for the FBI of all places to help with lookout. They also get Chas (Blake Jenner, Glee), a fitness buff and rich kid who can help finance their scheme and serve as their wheelman.
As the target date for the crime grows closer, they begin to get cold feet. It’s one thing of course to plan a major theft, quite another to actually go through with it- especially when there’s a very real possibility of inflicting physical harm on innocent bystanders. In their fantasy version of events, the crime goes plays out smoothly and professionally- and everyone, dressed in their matching black suits, remains just like Fonzie. Remember what Fonzie was like? Yeah, he was cool. Needless to say, in the real-life version, things don’t go exactly as planned.
As much as Tarantino’s films inspired the way these kids saw themselves (they even use code names ala Reservoir Dogs even though Chas correctly argues that doesn’t make sense since they already know each other) it’s clear they didn’t watch his movies too closely. The beginning incident of Reservoir Dogs, after all, is a heist that goes horribly wrong. For all of their bravado and bluster, these kids aren’t hardened criminals and its clear early on they have no idea how to navigate the world of fine art theft.
Still, they wanted a transformative experience and they got one. It might not have turned out the way anyone expected, but here they are, in the end, with their story being told on the big screen for all the world to see. I just wish writer/director Layton would get out of the way so that we could see it better.